Western Rite Critic

A Balance to Contagious Enthusiasm

Western Rite Fasting Rules

Fish & Chips w. Beer“Fasting, as distinguished from abstinence… Fasting is absolutely forbidden on all Sundays, Solemnities, and Greater Feasts. Additionally, since both canonical rules and the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict prohibit fasting on Saturdays, only abstinence may be observed on Saturdays in fasting seasons.” [source]

The article is muddled and verbose, but it still amounts to no steak dinner on Sunday afternoons. 🙂

“Water does not break the fast.” [Ibid.]

Actually, the tradition is to fast even from water on Saturday nights until holy communion, is it not? [answers in the comments section]

“On days of abstinence, fish and dairy products are always permitted. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, but wine and beer, where customary, are allowed. “ [Ibid.]

What? Regular boned fish? So one can go for fish, chips, and a beer in Lent? [answers in the comments section]


March 8, 2008 - Posted by | Western Rite Pieties | , , ,


  1. I think there’s a typo in the article. For “but it still amounts to no steak dinner on Sunday afternoons,” I think what was meant was “but it still amounts to steak dinner on Sunday afternoons,” presumably meaning the Sundays of Lent, the Apostles’ fast (a standard Western rite custom), or the Nativity fast (a 40 day fast before Nativity is a standard Western rite custom). Of course, before the 20th century, it was understood in the Roman church that eating dairy or meat on Sundays in Lent is forbidden.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | April 12, 2008 | Reply

  2. I think it is wiser to fast together with your fasting Greek brothers and sisters. If you do so, you will be 90% in line with historic Western fasting customs. You will be keeping much more of the Western Orthodox fast rules than those who follow the majority-Western rite Orthodox fast rules. But the important thing is to begin to learn to fast and to combine the fasting with prayer. They are two wings and both are necessary for flight.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | April 12, 2008 | Reply

  3. This is not Orthodox thinking. Not criticizing you for it, but for your sake it must be pointed out, so you can find the way. We risk offending you, but only to offer you a torch in this dark world. Fasting is not merely cultural and not merely a custom. That’s the operative assumption in your query (“the different customs surrounding fasting” as you put it).

    It’s highly improper to make these decisions oneself, based on one’s personal theoretical premises. Instead, we follow the calendar, fasting rule, liturgics, liturgy, and readings of the Church wherever it is we regularly receive the Holy Mysteries. If a catechumen, then where we are receiving catechesis. If excommunicated, then where we are doing our penance or suffering our travail. If it is Western Rite, then you follow the appointed calendar, fasting rule, and readings of that Church. If it is what is commonly called “Eastern Rite”, then you follow the ones for that Church. We never style these things ourselves, the way a progressivist constructs a society out of what he thinks best.

    This comes up sometimes among traditionalists who want to follow the old calendar, but find themselves receiving the Mysteries at a new calendar church. Or vice versa. One must keep the rules tied to the Mysteries celebrated in a community. It is always ‘together’ that we do these things – how else will we encourage one another to stand strong?

    This is forgotten today, even among the faithful. We act as though the Fast is some private, personal devotion. That is how Protestants fast – nebulously and when each has a mind to, and from what, and how long, and how much, they each decide. It’s not like that in Orthodoxy – in fact, it’s forbidden to fast on many feasts, just as its forbidden to feast on the fasts – we are always doing one or the other. I always say, if there are any days missing from your calendar, get a better calendar, because every day is either one or the other and for a definite reason and purpose – one has only to look at a good calendar, and keep it. If you’re in a new calendar Church, like the Greek Church, this one is the best I’ve seen: http://www.allsaintsnc.org/calendar.php (provided by an Antiochian parish).

    It is good to have Orthodox friends who are serious about keeping the traditions. People will say you’re legalistic, but it’s better not to listen to them than not to keep the traditions. My friends and I encourage one another throughout the Fast: one of us encourages another even before the fast starts – to plan (he sucks at that) – to make a meal plan and buy the right stuff (smuckers peanut butter – it’s the healthiest, hummus w/o olive oil, eggless bread), because otherwise he’ll look up suddenly and think “what can I eat” (in a nation drowning in a sea of food while the world starves), and in his failing, he’ll reach out and break the fast. If he prepares, he will stand strong. Another of us has scant problem with the actual matter of the fast, and can easily eat veegan, avoid olive oil, and he doesn’t drink alcohol anyway, but he is tempted by quantity and frequency, and it helps when friends pray with him and encourage him with the words of the fathers. Prayer is meant to fill up the space we intentionally leave by eating less and less frequently. When we eat to our fill, we grow sleepy and not watchful and alert; when we leave space, we are a little weaker and can weaken the passions, but this is the strength to pray and gain still more strength. It is strength to throw off the yoke of external controls. Another of us is from an Orthodox country where people lived under communism and forgot the fasts, and so while baptized as an infant, he is more obsessed with “health” than fasting, and he isn’t judged, but neither do we put out egg-cakes and ham for him during Lent, and if he asks for advice, he is given the words of the Fathers on this (e.g. St. Seraphim “one who does not fast does not really believe in God.”), and if he asks how he will survive, he is asked how grandmother survived so long, who keeps the fast to this day, but if he asks if we think him a sinner, we say that we think only of our own sins.

    Because we are a community, we fast and feast together, we encourage one another, and we don’t even dare to stand alone, except when our brothers fail and fall around us, and then we stand for them, because it is our sins that we have not successfully borne them up, and we must fast to be clean, and improve. Think about it like this – can one person fast when another feasts? Or would one of us be content to live in luxury while another fights a battle? We are one. Can one prepare privately with the readings for a particular day or season of veneration on one calendar that doesn’t line up with the readings and day being kept in the liturgy wherein we receive the Mysteries? But this is to receive unprepared and unworthily. Time and experience will show it to be absurd. So when a feat is to be accomplished, we say to each other “stand strong, brother. Quit you like men, friends. Bear me up, with your prayers, so I don’t fall.” and we bear each other up, and together we overcome. The passions we trod down. The dominance over us of material things we repudiate and slough off. And we find our glorious freedom. And when the feast comes, we feast not with gluttony and desperation but with delight and joyous occasion, for we find ourselves at Christ’s supper. Among the young men we say, ‘God grant us strength to accomplish the holy feat.” This is the same as when in many countries the priest casts the blessing cross into the frigid waters and the young men dive in to rescue it. Among the old men, we say, ” Our friend, the fast. Let us embrace it once again with joy.”

    One cannot describe this to anyone. One has to have it, little by little, to understand.

    So the first thing is to become Orthodox by letting go the penchant for personal religious philosophy – just as one lets go of the notion of a personal ‘nature’.

    The second thing is to be faithful within the context of the Church, the Bishop, and the Mysteries – in short, a community, not alone. This is really the same as the first point – it’s just expressed differently.

    Finally, one should keep the best intentions of the rule, and not necessarily what one sees another doing. In other words, keep the appointed rule, but if someone makes light of it in the community, assume they are more worthy than you and have less need of it, but keep the fullness of the rule anyway. This too is the same thing, because we are keeping the rule with all those who have gone before into deification, and surround us now, cheering us as athletes to this feat, as a great cloud of witnesses. The angels with them give glory to God.

    These things will keep you on track.

    Also, it is not true that the only difference (or the slight difference) between heterodoxy and Orthodoxy is ‘mere heresy’. The differences are not simply a left turn, but an entire way of thinking, perceiving the world, and an entirely other religious psychology. In short, were the heterodox today to sign off on all the right doctrines or verbiage, it still wouldn’t give them an Orthodox mind, and so would not save. Remember the “Quicunque vult”:

    Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
    Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

    It goes on to say, “He therefore that will be saved must thus think…”. It has become typical, precisely because of the massive psychological departure, to understand “think” as mere belief – in other words, intellectual assent to a body of doctrine. But belief/thought/mind in the Orthodox sense is transformative, whether Orthodox thought or error. Because of our anthropology, we understand the mind to transform the whole person, the whole man, for it is man’s mind that governs his soul, as a part and yet the preeminent part. And in fact, when that preeminence is surrendered, it is likewise a transformation. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether Adam first fell in his mind, or whether he fell my surrendering his mind to his desire.

    In short, conversion is a whole process that takes all of your life, now and beyond, and it cannot be done by the mere adoption of doctrine. That is only a little step down the path. But one step down the other path, that of false doctrine, begins to unravel the religious mind itself, so that the entire religious psychology becomes transformed. This can be true among not only the heterodox, but among ourselves if we are not faithful – for we too may be cut off as a branch. When we think we are secure, and have no need to be concerned about such things, in that day and that attitude lies our peril, for we are then close to being burned up as kindling.

    And after all, Orthodoxy for all its apparently similarities, differs from heterodoxy on one all important point. We are not a belief system, or a system of religious philosophy. Orthodoxy is a means to an end. All our beliefs are means, not ends in themselves. We are not absolutists – not religious philosophers at all, but pilgrims. Everything is for deification, for theosis, for becoming God. Anything that is not for that, for what we mean by ‘salvation’, is only dissipation, and we have cast it aside. It only creeps back in as idols stowed away under our tents. Illicit, unnecessary, and dangerous, whether words from pulpits or private thoughts. As a famous Protestant once said, ‘the good things are the enemy of the best things, simply for lack of time’. We are given this space, this time, to repent, which means to alter course, and make the pilgrimage with sure feet into God, to become inseparable to Him by His uncreate Grace. God became man that man might become God. What can compare to this? There is nothing else, and that’s the point – all that is not God will be burned away and cease to be forever and ever. These things we do – fasting – or most importantly, keeping the Fasts – these are means of that deification, and indeed of liberating ourselves from the hegemony of culture, of illicit sensations, and of all that is bound for fire that can cause us to turn left or right without even realizing it.

    I hope this helps. Pray for me, if you happen to think of me.

    Comment by tuD | April 12, 2008 | Reply

  4. I’m wondering about the different customs surrounding fasting and being from a culture which has lost any fasting tradition, but which did have one a long time ago. As a Westerner by background, even though I’m joining the Orthodox Church of Greece, I still don’t consider myself Greek. As a Westerner, wouldn’t it make more sense to follow the traditional Western Orthodox rules? I feel that if I’m going to follow the Greek rules, I should be Greek: I should speak Greek, eat Greek food, engage in Greek cultural activities. But I’m a Westerner! I’m only joining the Greek Orthodox Church because it’s Orthodox! Because the Western ‘Church’ in which I grew up turns out to be heretical! But before it lapsed into heresy, it was still different from the Eastern Church, with different customs and so forth. That didn’t mean it was not Orthodox.

    Comment by jgress | April 11, 2008 | Reply

  5. The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14) is, however, connected with fasting in the Western rite. First of all, there is the fact that in later usage the ember days of September are to be reckoned as the first Wed., Fri., and Sat. after Holy Cross (in earlier usage, they are the last Wed., Fri., and Sat. before Michaelmas–which, half the time, works out to the same set of days).

    In the Rule of St. Benedict, the fasting half of the year (the season when meals are taken much later in the day) begins the ides of September, which is Sept. 13. We might even look at this as some kind of a fasted vigil for Holy Cross, except that it lasts until Pascha and encompasses, as was said, half the year.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | March 22, 2008 | Reply

  6. (I asked about the fish because I know that it was basically permitted on fast days throughout the West. But on the other hand, I have somewhere read in a book of pastoral advice to mediaeval English priests that fish should be foregone during Lent if possible, as if it was considered an “extra good effort.”

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  7. Fr. Augustine, what does your mediaeval English cookbook say about fish in Lent?

    The Dormition fast is not purely Eastern. It was practised at Rome in the ninth century, but it then consisted of four weeks (not two) of mild fasting (not strict). The observance never seems to have expanded past the immediate environs of Rome to the rest of Europe.

    The West did not have a custom of fasting in preparation for the Holy Cross.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  8. Originally the Theotokos fast was Eastern, yes – albeit it followed Dormition and lasted until Holy Cross, which was then a feast day (not a fast day). The West had a similar custom of fasting in preparation for Holy Cross.

    I don’t know why, but I thought the Dormition Fast was prescribed for England by one of the Anglo-Saxon synods.


    Comment by fatheraugustine | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  9. The Theotokos Fast (or Dormition Fast) is Eastern:

    AOA | OCA

    Comment by tuD | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  10. Yes, dairy was forbidden at that time. I recently got a book on medieval cooking – specifically because, like most things in the Middle Ages, the discipline was not separated from spirituality. The book is bursting with information about the theology of food (they even talked about the passions and the “four humours,” and the various foods that were more likely to upset certain temperaments and inflame their passions). The book also talks about the very inescapable reality of fasts and feasts in Medieval cooking.

    And, this book (which deals mostly with late-medieval cooking in England) takes it for granted that dairy was “right out” during Lent and other fasts. I imagine that whatever was going on in Bulgaria during the 9th century, the politics on both sides exacerbated, distorted and inflated the problem – especially in the re-telling.

    One question: I thought the Dormition Fast was a Western Orthodox custom. Is it not?


    Comment by fatheraugustine | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  11. I conjecture that it might have been the case the Latins in the early 9th century were allowing Bulgarians to eat dairy during Lent as a temporary missionary economia. But what is quite clear is that in the Latin West in those days, at that exact time of history, the eating of dairy during Lent, even on Sundays, was altogether forbidden.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | March 11, 2008 | Reply

  12. That’s the thing – no one likes to talk about it, but one of the problems with an essentially “papal” authority structure (which is what you have by the 9th century), is that we no longer really keep each other honest – we aren’t fraternal, confederated, of what have you, but in fact changes can be sanctioned or permitted that could not easily happen except in a papal or neopapal structure.

    We like to look at the bare issue of what was pre-schism and what was post, but not really pay attention to what came out of the very spiritual psychology and culture that generated the Schism. This is because it serves us to deny the Schism was over substantive religious issues, and to make the fashionable claim that it was primarily social, political, economic factors that drove it.

    To me then, it’s as ecumenistic to have wannabe-1950s-Roman-Catholic fasting rules as it is to “lift anathemas”. Say that too loudly, and all kinds of people try to come down on you. It’s because, as with evolution, neoconservatism, and a host of other little idols tucked under the bed, we really want to be ecumenists. Better yet, we want a Pope in our religion. Ours or theirs. We once insisted God give us a King to rule over us, and so he did, and we were never the same from the leanness in our hearts.

    Comment by tuD | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  13. “Moreover, dairy products were most definitely not allowed on abstinence and fast days in the Western lands, up until I believe 1910.”

    However, one of the things which scandalized the Greeks working in Bulgaria in the ninth century was that the Latins allowed cheese and eggs during Lent, if I’m not mistaken.

    Comment by jackturner3 | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  14. Thanks. The article more of a friendly elbowing. 🙂

    Thanks for clarification on water and fish. 🙂

    Comment by tuD | March 10, 2008 | Reply

  15. Not to be judgmental about this particular set of fast rules, but to set the record straight, I would like to point out that the traditional Western rite fast rules (from the West’s Orthodox period) assume that:

    – all fasting days are also abstinence days
    – on Sundays falling in fast seasons require lenten fare

    > … “Water does not break the fast.” [Ibid.]
    >> Actually, the tradition is to fast even from water on Saturday nights until holy communion, is it not?

    The communion fast (which water does break) is not being referred to here, but the fasts on, say, lenten weekdays.

    > … “On days of abstinence, fish and dairy products are always permitted. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, but wine and beer, where customary, are allowed. “ [Ibid.]

    Fish was indeed permitted in fasting seasons in the Western rite in many places, before the Schism of 1054. However, this was not universal. Moreover, dairy products were most definitely not allowed on abstinence and fast days in the Western lands, up until I believe 1910. That is why there were “Butter Towers” built with indulgence money, precisely so that the laity who gave building donations *could* eat dairy products in, say, Lent. Also, English documents make clear that throughout the 15th century, dairy products were considered forbidden during Lent.

    The Western rite fast rules amongst the old calendarists are almost the same as the Byzantine ones except that fish is allowed more often, and there are a number of fasted vigils, and there is no Dormition fast.

    I think we can discuss, compare, and with a friendly, constructive spirit improve upon some of the fast rules which prevail now amongst the WR Orthodox. However, the caveat at the beginning of the ROCOR monastery’s document holds valid and true: Judge not thy neighbour’s plate.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | March 10, 2008 | Reply

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